There have been twelve dozen dozens of books written about how to write poetry. I know that, because I read them all, and they were all gibberish to me. Frankly, I don’t know how to write poetry. I start writing, and sometimes it’s poetry, and sometimes prose, and sometimes poesy (whatever that is) and sometimes it doesn’t work out and I tear it up or delete, and start over or go birdwatching.
I took a class in poetry writing back in the long-ago. I learned nothing — or, if I did, I don’t remember it. All things considered nowadays, that’s probably it; I forgot whatever it was. Actually, that’s not true. I did learn one thing:
You can’t force poetry.
You can sit down and say to yourself, “I’m going to write an essay on the meaning of pomegranate seeds in early Greek literature,” buckle down to it, and come up with something in essay form. It may be lousy writing, but it will be recognizable as an essay, assuming that you know how to put one together. The essay part is all mechanics. The quality of the writing is another matter.
But you can’t force poetry. Either it flows, or it doesn’t. The quickest way to fail is to sit down determined to write a poem. Oh, it can be done if you understand the nuts and bolts, just as the essay could, but there is one crucial difference: a competent essay conveys an idea or ideas; a great essay conveys those, plus emotion, but both are still essays. A poem without emotion, on the other hand, isn’t poetry. It’s a collection of mechanics combined with a selection of vocabulary. It may rhyme, scan perfectly, have utterly precise meter and phrasing, and yet, lacking emotion conveyed, it is only an essay in rhyme or blank verse or whatever. It’s a poem, but it’s not poetry.
I wrote a lot of shitty poems trying to force out some poetry. I don’t know if the stuff I write now is poetry or not, but it rouses emotion in me, and that’s why I write it. I don’t know why I couldn’t do it in my twenties. Many people could. Billy Collins. Mary Oliver. Bob Dylan. I couldn’t. At age 67 and counting I now believe I can, at least part of the time — and I don’t know what has made the difference. Relaxation, maybe, and the knowledge that, in the end, every writer writes for herself. If others like it, that’s fine too, as long as you’re not trying to make a living at it.
Perhaps that’s the difference. Some people write for others, and some write for themselves. It’s a working hypothesis. What do you think?
Anyway, here’s a poem.
Oh no! My God! Is that a bug?
A lizard scoots across the rug
And panicked snowbirds get the spray
Or call the bug-man up and say
I need you here! Right now! Today!
Let’s face it, Florida’s in the Topics.
And since we’re talking climate topics,
Great for snakes and frogs as well,
And ants whose bites will make you swell,
With weather patterns straight from Hell.
These go with warmth, and sun, and rain
And all the reasons that you came
To join us in the Land of Flowers
And while away your Senior hours
Whining about our Summer showers.
So why pay for this pestilence?
Good cash for misery makes no sense,
So (if I may close with a groaner)
I’m sure that there’s a willing loaner
Who’ll help you move to Arizoner.